Shane Thomas (right) and Michael Bishop with their children Thomas and Mariella. Thomas and Bishop are domestic partners and have been together for almost 10 years.
Photo: Special
Photo: Special

Gay marriage puts domestic partner benefits in doubt

Gay marriage ruling removes a rationale for extending spousal coverage.

If you’re in a domestic partnership, you might consider putting a ring on it soon or face losing benefits.

Employers around metro Atlanta are considering whether to phase out domestic partner benefits now that gay marriage is legal nationwide.

Delta Air Lines said it is ending its domestic partner program and giving couples until 2018 to marry or be cut off. The city of Decatur is doing the same for city employees, requiring those covered to tie the knot in a year or lose coverage.

Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and Emory University, among others, have said they are evaluating whether to retire domestic partner benefits.

“We’re going to carefully consider what’s fair for associates and their partners,” Home Depot spokesman Stephen Holmes said.

Domestic partner programs appeared in the 1990s as a way to extend health insurance and other spousal benefits to gay couples who could not be legally married. Some employers extended the benefits to straight unmarried couples.

The Supreme Court’s recent ruling means gay couples can now access spousal benefits via marriage, eliminating the original rationale for domestic partner benefits, at least among employers who offer them specifically to same-sex couples.

Employers offering the benefits to both groups are more likely to continue them, experts say.

The city of Atlanta, for example, which offers the benefits to both gay and straight unmarried couples, said it will keep the benefits for the 275 or so workers who use them.

Delta, Home Depot, Coke and Emory have only offered them to same-sex partners.

Pushed into marriage?

Some worry that the withdrawal of domestic partner benefits could push some couples into marriages they are not ready for or even break up relationships.

“Your employer should not be in the business of setting your wedding date,” said Michael Bishop, who is in a domestic partnership with Shane Thomas.

The two, who have been together almost 10 years, have two adopted children, Thomas, 6, and Mariella, 4. Bishop works for AT&T, which offers domestic partner benefits to both same- and opposite-sex couples. The company said it plans to continue its domestic partner program.

Bishop, a plaintiff in a case that sought to overturn Georgia’s gay marriage ban before the Supreme Court ruling, said domestic partner benefits recognize that there is value in protecting relationships outside of formal marriage.of t

“Our plan is certainly to be married,” Bishop said. “We are figuring out the best time to take that plunge.”

A survey of large employers by the ERISA Industry Committee, which advocates for the employee benefits interests of about 100 of America’s largest businesses, just before the June ruling found that about 70 percent of employers said they would keep domestic partnership programs regardless of the outcome.

About 60 percent of the 42 companies that answered the survey said they offer them to opposite-sex couples and 90 percent of those that answered offered them to same-sex partners, said ERISA Industry Committee CEO Annette Guarisco Fildes. ERISA Industry Committee is an acronym for the Employment Retirement Income Security Act Industry Committee and is sometimes known as ERIC.

Fildes said employers that drop the benefits must clearly explain the reasoning or risk alienating staff.

The cost of offering domestic partnership benefits is negligible, experts said. The efficiency companies gain by cutting the programs is in reducing the work in keeping up with compliance, audits and differences in how pay is handled, said Tony Holmes, a senior consultant in the health and benefits practice of health care consultantcy Mercer.

“Complexity is an issue and all employers in all states are looking for ease,” he said.

In Decatur, officials worry about equity if they keep their partner benefits, which are offered only to same-sex couples. Now that both gay and straight couples can get benefits through marriage, offering them only to same-sex couples could be a legal problem.

In a holding pattern

The city’s labor attorney recommended dropping them “because the current domestic partner benefits policy could be subject to a discrimination claim if the domestic partner rights are only offered to same-sex partners,” Decatur Assistant City Manager Andrea Arnold wrote in a letter earlier this month to City Manager Peggy Merriss.

Gay and lesbian couples, as well as their straight counterparts in domestic partnerships, are in a holding pattern on many benefits issues.

In addition to fate of domestic partnerships, gay and lesbian couples are seeking basic facts on when they can add spouses to benefits or what steps they need to take with human resource offices for tax and Social Security purposes now that their marriages, which Georgia previously did not recognize, are legal.

“This is what equality looks like,” said Jeff Cleghorn, a family attorney in Atlanta.

For Jason Campbell of Atlanta, the Supreme Court’s decision and the legitimacy that followed is a relief. He and his husband Chris, who married last October in another state, are covered by his employer, Gwinnett Medical Center, which offers benefits to both gay and straight domestic partners. The hospital said in a statement it plans to keep the benefits.

“While GMC is working to understand how coverage will be impacted since the federal ruling, all individuals who have been covered under the domestic partner plan will continue to receive those benefits,” spokeswoman Beth Hardy said.

The reassurance is important to Campbell. He anticipates integrating gay marriage into employer benefits will be bumpy and keeping domestic partnerships alive offers a safety net.

“In some ways we are waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said. “It’s legal, but …”

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